Food Sensitivities And AutoimmuneApr 09, 2023
Do you have a list of foods you're sensitive to or suspect that you need to cut foods out to help get your autoimmune under control?
Maybe you're confused as to whether or not doing a food sensitivity test will really help?
Food sensitivity testing is used by numerous health professionals, including doctors and nutritionists (like myself) as a tool in developing a customized nutrition plan for their clients and patients.
YET, food sensitivity testing for autoimmune is not something everyone agrees on and some in the medical community question the validity of testing because a "food sensitivity" is not fixed, meaning it's not there for life, nor is it life threatening. However, those who use food sensitivity testing as part of their nutrition plan typically experience relief.
This makes it confusing.
In my 10 years clinical experience in working with women and their families on various health issues (including autoimmune), I have yet to have a client who has NOT had some sort of food sensitivity or intolerance that was making their physical symptoms worse.
I also have the personal experience of having grown up with fixed food allergies, food sensitivities and intolerances. I’ve been living with them for 50 years.
In this article, I explain:
- What is a food sensitivity vs allergy
- How do you test for food sensitivities
- Why I recommend food sensitivity testing
- How to navigate food sensitivity testing
What is a food sensitivity?
A food sensitivity is an immune response to food, specifically, immunglobulin G (an antibody - a "fighter that protects your body") in response to an antigen (an antagonist, a foreign invader the body doesn't recognize or perceives as a threat).
What does that mean?
"When your body feels it is under attack, it makes special proteins called immunoglobulins or antibodies. These antibodies are made by the plasma cells. They are let loose throughout the body to help kill antigens like bacteria, viruses, and other germs. The body makes 5 major types of immunoglobulins:
- Immunoglobulin A (IgA)
- Immunoglobulin D (IgD)
- Immunoglobulin E (IgE)
- Immunoglobulin G (IgG)
- Immunoglobulin M (IgM)
Immunoglobulin G (IgG) is the most common type... IgG is always there to help prevent infections. It’s also ready to multiply and attack when foreign substances get into the body." John Hopkins Medicine on IgG deficiency and why it's important to have IgG antibodies in your system.
So, our bodies produce antibodies - immunoglobulins - as a protective mechanism against foreign invaders and food sensitivity tests measure the IgG response.
What is an allergy?
When someone has an allergy (food, animals, environment, chemical), there is an immediate and measurable immune response. The most common immunoglobulin measured is IgE. When there is an IgE response, typically, your response is fixed - it is there for life, or at least a long period of time.
An IgE reaction indicates a systemic immune response to the invader (like anaphylaxis, asthma, runny nose, itchy eyes, dermatitis). Other immunoglobulins are sometimes measured (like IgA - the mucous response), but IgE is the most common one measured when you visit an allergist.
To diagnose allergies, the most common test is the "scratch test" whereby the allergist pricks the skin, allowing a small amount of a protein to enter the bloodstream. The reaction is always to the protein in the substance, and immediate - usually 15 minutes.
Doctors diagnose allergies by this reaction - redness, swelling, itch. Doctors will sometimes use blood tests, when a skin test is deemed too dangerous (skin infection). Either way, these tests are important and can save lives. In the case of anaphylaxis (a life threatening allergy), allergists are a key part of the team.
Food allergies that mark an IgE response are typically fixed - meaning there's a good chance you have them for life.
What is a food sensitivity test?
A food sensitivity test marks your body's IgG response to 190 tested foods, plus the ability to add on candida antibodies to rule out if a person is reacting to yeast overgrowth (or the food).
The at-home kits are a dry blood spot test, meaning, you take a few drops of blood at home, and send your results back to the lab.
The lab then marks the IgG response to proteins in 190 common foods. They use a colour scheme for the tested foods along with a number score. The foods in red should be avoided, yellow in moderation and green, no worries. The marking scheme is based on the IgG response.
Food sensitivities vs allergies (my experience)
As a child, I was the kid at school covered in eczema that others were afraid to touch.
I have seen allergists all my life and they have been helpful to improve my quality of life in various ways. My environmental allergies have never gone away BUT as I’ve learned to work on my health and detoxification pathways and my reactions are much less severe.
My childhood food allergies (peas, peanuts, oats and oranges) have lessened over the years. YET, I've developed new allergies ... hazelnuts which now requires an epipen.
In my latest visit to the allergist, I actually had to push for this hazelnut testing as an itchy mouth (my symptom) didn't seem life threatening. I also asked about gluten and dairy because I break out in eczema and get ulcers in my mouth when I ate dairy or wheat.
Hazelnuts were a yes ... definite allergy.
Gluten and dairy ... no, not an allergy and the advice I was given was to eat more ... there was no reason to cut them out of my diet, even though it was causing mouth ulcers and eczema.
But I know that I react.
So, I ordered a food sensitivity test to compare.
Some of the foods that were "fixed allergies" when I was young (ie., oats) showed up on the list, along with some new foods.
According to the food sensitivity test, I'm still reacting to some of my previous allergies and now reacting to more nuts than simply hazelnuts. Wheat and dairy were also there. But according to the allergist, I'm not allergic to wheat or dairy, despite the eczema and ulcer connection.
Do food sensitivity tests help with autoimmune?
The short answer ... absolutely yes, but an elimination diet is better.
In my professional and personal experience, depending on your state of health, you can have heightened sensitivity to what is entering your body. State of mind, chronic inflammation, stress, physical injury, toxic overload, leaky gut and bacterial imbalances can all negatively influence your body's immune response and can contribute to food sensitivities.
Click here to read more on this: autoimmune and digestive health.
When you are in a state of good health, your body is better able to process a wide variety of foods with little effort. This is no different than being able to fight off a cold/flu that is going around.
However, when you are have chronic, lingering health issues, you might react to certain foods that wouldn't normally bother you because you're already in a pro-inflammatory state.
I recommend food sensitivity tests under certain conditions:
- You are the type of person who has a hard time sticking with nutrition recommendations and do better with a list of YES/NO/CAUTION that are customized to you through a lab. This has more to do with compliance or motivation.
- You have already tried an elimination diet like Itis, Paleo, AIP or even gluten free, and feel you're still reacting to certain foods and aren't able to pinpoint what food is bothering you.
The reason why I recommend food sensitivity tests under these situations is to eliminate any possible external triggers - exterior irritants - that may cause an additional inflammatory response.
The goal is to let the body CALM DOWN.
Reduce overall inflammation so your body can focus on healing and return to balance. This is a key part of the The Autoimmune Nutrition Triad ... and reducing your overall inflammatory load by feeding and fuelling better immune, digestive and hormonal responses.
It does when you consider the role of IgG - to defend the body against against what it perceives as foreign invaders.
The usual protocol is to remove these foods for three to four months, during which time you really make an effort to reduce internal inflammation with increasing the nutritional density (or value) of what you're eating, restoring microbiome health and diversity, along with lifestyle changes that can also influence reactions to food (i.e., stress hormones).
THEN you reintroduce one food at a time to see if your body still reacts.
Reactions can take up to four days, so it's important you REALLY pay attention to how you feel - physically and emotionally. It can vary from person to person. Here is a short list of possible reactions
- Skin: itchy, dry skin, eczema flare, hives
- Brain: headaches or migraines, brain fog, irritability, mood swings, difficulty concentrating, hyperactivity
- Digestion: constipation, diarrhea, stomach pains, gas/burping
- Other: aches/pains, sinuses, disrupted sleep, urinary incontinence
If you are still reacting, we remove the trigger food for another few months, and so on. The goal is to get you back on track, eating all the foods you want to enjoy.
However, unless the underlying reason as to WHY there is inflammation is not resolved, the food sensitives may linger. The process is individualized and a journey.
For example ...
In my case, I had been reacting to gluten and dairy for a few years, yet was encouraged to keep eating it because I had received a negative celiac blood test and allergy test. In 2018, I tested positive for the primary celiac gene in addition to an IgG sensitivity. It is not a diagnosis for celiac, but given the fact I get mouth ulcers and eczema, my family doctor, rheumatologist and dermatologist suddenly (and unanimously) advised I stay away.
And this is where critics of IgG testing really miss the mark.
They look only at the test and not the application or individual's larger health history or symptoms. Nor do they address the many root issues as to WHY a person would be reacting to foods and HOW to go about bringing things into balance.
Navigating food sensitivities when you have an autoimmune or inflammatory condition
Living and working around food allergies or sensitivities doesn't have to be limiting. Many of my clients panic when we look at food sensitivity test results that look like a street light of red, yellow and green, but once they realize, "hey, there are lots of great things I can eat," and I give them tools to cope using my Reality Based Meal Planning Method ... they start to FEEL BETTER.
And feeling better provides the ticket to being able to handle these restrictions with ease.
The good news is that there are so many options and substitutions you can draw on. I encourage you not to dismiss food sensitivity testing if you have a chronic health issue based on one bad review or naysayer.
The results can be helpful and liberating in your overall health plan.
If you're interested in learning more about whether food sensitivities are a good option for you, send me an email and we can chat to see if it makes sense for your health goals - Click Here For More Information.